In their ongoing efforts to introduce a diverse range of perspectives to the Duke community, The Archive will feature novelist, essayist and short story writer, Zadie Smith, as part of the 2014 Blackburn Literary Festival. The event, which includes a reading, signing and Q&A, will be Jan. 30 in the Von der Heyden Pavilion.
The Archive is the undergraduate literary magazine and the oldest publication at Duke. As part of its mission to make literature more accessible to students, the publication annually presents the Blackburn Literary Festival, which was established by Professor William Blackburn in 1959. Since then, The Archive has hosted a legacy of great authors on Duke’s campus, varying from Margaret Atwood to Toni Morrison to playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who spoke at the Duke Coffeehouse last spring.
“The goal of the magazine is to promote and publish creative writing by undergraduate students,” Allison Shen, senior and co-editor of The Archive, said.
In choosing the keynote speaker, the co-editors took renown, relevance and diversity into account. Given that the Duke Summer Reading Program has had a history of traditionally overrepresented identities—white, male authors—The Archive aimed to invite writers who would represent more diverse perspectives and introduce new forms of literature to the Duke community.
“[Smith] is one of the most famous contemporary novelists…It’s a good reason to choose anybody,” Shen said. “What she’s writing is really important and ambitious. The style she writes in is innovative. She was a good candidate to have not only in terms of star power but also as a writer who has something different to say.”
Aarthi Vadde, assistant professor of English and international comparative studies, is researching Smith to inform a chapter on her new book which discusses the contemporary novel and its relationship to themes of globalization.
“Zadie Smith has been a really formative writer for thinking about those things since she wrote ‘White Teeth’ and became known as a writer who is able to represent, cleverly, themes in multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism,” Vadde said.
Beyond these professional encounters with Smith’s work, Vadde enjoys the writing on a personal level. She lauds Smith’s versatile style, which traverses both as a novelist and a literary critic, and also Smith’s ability to constantly experiment and push boundaries. Smith’s work has indeed been influenced by her upbringing, her gender and her race. Her topics largely center around or reflect upon issues of class and upward mobility, such that Smith’s work, Vadde explained, is capable of extending “beyond aesthetic complexity to identity.”
“Zadie Smith is probably one of the most interesting contemporary writers because she’s both extending the formal innovations and experimentations we associate with the novel in her work, and she’s also writing about the genre from a critical standpoint,” Vadde said. “She’s really mastered the ability to write in different idioms and styles and to reactivate what are considered classic traditions of the novel…it’s hard to say that she has one coherent style because you get the sense that she’s really trying to push herself to adopt new narrative techniques with each work.”
Smith will be available after her reading to answer questions and give a book signing. Notably, the writer has been extremely open about her writing process and career trajectory. She is in the distinctive position of not only offering valuable insight, but insight that is both approachable and more immediately relatable than that of many of her contemporaries. Smith herself wrote her first novel, “White Teeth,” at 22—strikingly close in age to students that will be in her audience.
To hear Smith give a reading of her own work will offer another aspect to the audience’s experience of the writing. Vadde explained that there is an inherent advantage to attending a reading: as opposed to reading alone, which is often a quiet and internal experience, the audience has the opportunity to hear the author’s inflections, the voicing of her own style and the voicing of her characters.
“Hearing the author’s voice might actually make the story new again, to hear nuances that you didn’t hear when reading yourself,” Vadde said. “Just like with poetry, it can become an entirely new form when placed into the context of a performance.”
The Archive’s 2014 Blackburn Literary Festival will be held Thursday, Jan. 30, at 7 p.m. in the Von der Heyden Pavilion. Entry is free. Food and drinks will be provided. For more information, visit The Archive’s website.